Coronado Expedition, 2006

Matt Wycoff / Photography by Scott Clark

On August 12, 2006, I flew from New York’s LaGuardia to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to meet a good friend and photographer, Scott Clark. We picked up our bags at the baggage claim, rented a car, and I changed into a conquistador outfit, complete with plastic armor, knee-high leather boots, puffy shirt and tights. Our plan was to travel and photograph the route taken by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Coronado in his failed expedition to find gold in what is now the American Southwest.

I started thinking about this project in the winter of 2004, during the first few months of the war in Iraq. At the same time debates about Mexican immigration were also heating up in congress and the media. The Anglo history of America loomed large. The bloat of fear and nationalism was blurring our collective vision like a tumor behind the eyes. At the time I was feeling what I identify as a troubling and thoroughly contemporary emotion that is equal parts anger, anxiety, vague depression, apathy, and a profound sense of helplessness.

During the build up to war in Iraq America’s self-interests and its ideals of liberty and freedom were doing an awkward, if not disturbing, looking dance with one another. In the years that followed Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay exposed the profound and tragic contradictions between rhetoric and reality. Even in light of these events, protest felt ineffectual, even nostalgic, and political art felt suspiciously self-congratulatory. I wanted to create a space for myself to think about all of this, and I hoped re-enacting Coronado’s journey would be just ridiculous enough to be interesting.

Trying to inhabit the mind of a sixteenth century conquistador while driving and walking over the same land he traveled nearly 500 years earlier was both profound and absurd. For me, the rhetorical similarities between Coronado’s journey and America’s war in Iraq were largely gratuitous. Making a link between the blustering failures of each comes from an easy, but un-rigorous liberalism. But when I set this project in motion two years later, and the real implications of traveling through the American southwest in a conquistador outfit began to set in, it quickly cast my ideas about nationalism, economics, globalization, personal choice, and even altruism in a new light.

Just south of Tucson, Arizona, Scott and I stopped at a Wal-Mart off the interstate to pick up supplies for the week: camp fuel, granola bars, fruit, bread, beer, cheese, crackers, peanuts, and ice. For me performance art (walking into a Wal-Mart in a conquistador outfit) takes a certain amount of nerve–a mental build up that involves the suppression of my ego and self-image. It also requires a certain amount of faith in the public¬–faith that I wouldn’t get beat up, taken down to the station, or both.

This confidence can also come from a disdain for your “audience.” I failed to translate the disdain I sometimes feel toward politics and government in America into a healthy, or reckless, abandon. I wasn’t able to transform the twinge of guilt that comes with making others, and myself, uncomfortable into something that felt heroic.

People respond to the ridiculous in a variety of ways. One young boy in Wal-Mart asked me eagerly if I was, in his words, “a real fighter.” His mother pulled him away before I could answer, flashing a conciliatory smile as she disappeared down the isle of brightly colored boxes of cereal. Her son struggled to get another look over his shoulder. I watched him and felt empty.

Most adults are hard-wired to look away–to mind their own business for fear of getting pulled into the orbit. A few adults were far too willing to talk. Choosing between chewy and crunchy granola bars I heard a voice from down the aisle call out, “Hark, my liege!” I shuddered. This response had been conditioned by organizations such as the Renaissance Festival or the Society for Contemporary Anachronism, (SCA) which idealize the past through regular reenactment and, often, heavy alcohol consumption. These organizations share a deep-rooted and ambiguous sense that something has gone awry in contemporary government and society. They cast technological advancement as a bother–something that, for the space of the reenactment, is to be derided and poked fun at. Like the Luddite’s before them, their misgivings for technology and contemporary culture lean towards the apocalyptic, as if preparing for a future that resembles the past they idealize.

Looking back on the trip now, I felt more comfortable dressed as a conquistador in that Tucson Wal-Mart than almost anywhere else on the trip. It was as if all reality had been suspended and one form of spectacle effectively cancelled out the other. This sometimes-slim divide between reality and farce, truth and parody, is a wellspring of current cultural production including The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Onion, and the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen.

The history of reenactment my project borrows from goes back at least as far as Roman reenactments of battles in the Coliseum. The first documented reenactment in North America is thought to be the staged photographs taken of surviving members of General Custer’s 7th Cavalry after the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. 1 But America is full of other, subtler and more pervasive versions of reenactment. Suburban streets and neighborhood developments all over the country carry the names of Indian tribes or native names for the land they now occupy. This phenomenon moves between an expression of collective guilt and collective amnesia. Likewise programs like America’s Most Wanted use soft focus or slow-motion reenactments of horrific murders and kidnappings to create the illusion that depraved criminal activity is more common than it actually is. These programs often unravel into spectacles for hawking home security systems, karate classes, or key chain-sized cans of mace.

Historical reenactments rarely occur without an agenda. Some aim for accurate or impartial history in the name of entertainment, education, or remembrance, while others wallow in their distortion of history for ulterior, sometimes sinister, and often self-aggrandizing motives. My own reenactment provides an informal guide to how the purpose of the reenactment often determines its historical accuracy. Out of 288 soldiers on Coronado’s expedition, only sixty-one declared that they owned any armor at all according to the expeditions records, and only forty-five had helmets. The bulk of Coronado’s army actually consisted mostly of unarmored Mexican Indians, not ironclad medieval looking knights. 2 Accounts of what Coronado himself wore vary, but for the sake of being recognized as a conquistador I ignored known facts and based my costume on little more than a Halloween costume.

After stocking up at the Wal-Mart in Tucson, Scott and I pressed on, driving through an afternoon thundershower to the United States–Mexico border. The fence itself appears as exactly what it is–a crude, rusting hulk produced as the result of a conflict between neighbors. It feels uncomfortably petty and deranged. We visited the fence near Naco, Arizona, just off of route 92 and east of the major border town of Nogales. There the fence stands around thirty feet tall and appears in places as a patchwork of scrap metal apparently hurriedly welded together. The mood in the area around the border fence was quiet and solemn: a fascinating sort of wasteland that, despite all of the argument over Mexican immigration into America, feels remarkably unaware it is at the center of dizzying debate.

On the American side of the fence a few Hispanic men in cowboy hats gathered outside a bar under a neon sign flashing enigmatically in pink neon, “The Gay ’90s Bar.” They grinned mischievously under black mustaches, nudging each other and wheezing with restrained laughter as I walked past. A child’s birthday party went on unaware of my presence in a gravel lot beside sun-bleached stucco facades of buildings lining the nearly empty street. As I looked through holes in the fence, I saw the Mexican side of the border seemed similar, if not a bit less developed: Shack-like houses on red dirt lots were populated by children on bikes and adults milling around the open hoods of cars and trucks. As I climbed on and posed in front of the wall, little notice was given and no border patrol or bands of zealous “Minutemen” were forthcoming.

We drove from the border fence to the Coronado National Monument at the end of our first day. The park itself was built in 1911 and was originally named the Coronado International Monument. Mexico never completed its side of the park, and the name was changed in the 1950s to the Coronado National Monument. Now the park is another small reminder of the strained relations between the United States and Mexico in an incredibly scenic patch of mountains looking down on the San Pedro River Valley where Coronado’s expedition passed. When we arrived the air was still heavy with the smell of rain. Standing in the golden late afternoon light of a field twenty miles east of the monument’s visitor center, with no civilization in sight, I could imagine for the first time what passing through here in 1540 might have felt like.

The following morning Scott and I followed the muddy San Pedro River north before taking the winding Coronado Highway to the Phelps Dodge “open pit” copper mine outside of Clifton, Arizona. Massive dump trucks and cantilevered earthmovers plodded over the terraced earth like lumbering dinosaurs. The artificially geometric landscape stretched off into the horizon as far as the eye could see. This truly gigantic mine is harvesting one of the richest veins of copper in the world and would have surely been just under Coronado’s feet as he searched for gold and other precious metals in this part of Arizona.

My formal education about Coronado’s expedition occurred during my freshman year of high school. My ninth grade American history teacher, “Coach P,” stood in front of our class shading his eyes from an imaginary sun as if looking out into the distance. This was intended as an illustration of how, in 1539, a Spanish friar by the name of Marcos de Niza might have mistaken a distant adobe pueblo named Cibola 3 for the fabled “seven cities of gold.” This popular explanation vastly over simplifies the events leading up to Coronado’s expedition. The details of what is now believed to have led to Coronado’s expedition form a fascinating story about greed, power, misinformation, and belligerence that are frighteningly familiar.

The main trajectory of Coronado’s trip began in what is now Mexico City, and by most accounts moved north and east through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and finally to the plains of Kansas. Coronado traveled with an entourage of soldiers, slaves and livestock numbering collectively around 2,000. The expedition was blatantly aimed at finding fortune and power at the expense of native populations. The imprisonment, forced labor, or conversion of those natives to Catholicism that often followed was seen as a legitimate means toward the main goal of amassing enormous personal wealth and power.

The psyche of the Spanish living in New Spain in the 1530s contributed greatly to the planning of Coronado’s expedition. Following Columbus’s voyage in 1492 and continuing until Juan de Onate’s settlement of New Spain in 1598, Spaniards conducted more than one hundred separate major expeditions to explore, conquer, pacify, and colonize the New World. 4

The spoils from the first wave of this exploration made the investors and participants incredibly rich. The treasures taken from the initial exploration were quickly distributed to the investors and participants, leaving little for the flood of Spanish bound for the new world. This created a climate of intense speculation fueled by rampant rumors and longstanding myths. In their book, The Coronado Expedition, Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint write:

“To begin with, a robust heritage of thought led Europeans of the sixteenth century to believe that the Indies of Christopher Columbus harbored unimaginable stores of gold and silver and other precious goods.” 5 … “The lure of such wealth in the East had already motivated more than a century of intense exploration by Portuguese and Spaniards before the Coronado Expedition was conceived. Cibola, when that name was first heard by Europeans through Marcos de Niza, was for many certainly a place in the Orient. It is worth remembering, in this regard, that more than twenty years after the [Coronado] expedition, Pedro de Castaneda, 6 [a member and chronicler of the Coronado Expedition] still maintained that the lands north and west of Cibola and Tiguex were the beginning of Greater India.” 7

Aside from believing they were on the Indian subcontinent, the other powerful misconception that influenced the Spanish psyche in the 1530s was a myth about seven Catholic bishops and their congregations who had fled the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the early 700s 8. These Portuguese Bishops were long believed to have formed seven individual cities in a land called Antillia. They had supposedly become marvelously wealthy during the succeeding 800 years 9. This popular myth along with dozens, if not hundreds, of lesser myths about the fabled “seven cities of gold,” and other wild stories of wealth to the north of New Spain all lead up to the Coronado expedition.

The journey of Fray Marcos de Niza was the next important step towards beginning the expedition. Niza was sent prior to the Coronado Expedition to confirm the riches in the north and send word of the type and quantity of treasure to be found there. Marcos de Niza set out from the northernmost Spanish colony in March of 1539, guided on his journey by a Moorish slave named Esteban 10. According to his own records, some two or three weeks later Niza reached an agriculturally productive native settlement where he stayed for several weeks inquiring about the location of possible great cities to the north. He sent Esteban ahead with instructions to send word of what he found in the form of a cross. The size of the cross was to be equivalent to the importance and quantity of what he found.

Just days later Marcos de Niza received a cross from Esteban that was the height of a man. Marcos quickly followed, traveling several days to a week behind Esteban, soon learning for the first time the name of the place they were seeking: Cibola. Although Marcos was still far from the actual city, in all likelihood he would have sent several messages back to Viceroy Mendoza and Coronado along the way containing the good news from Esteban and affirmation from local native populations that seven wealthy cities did indeed exist to the north. The messages would have taken more than a month to reach the capital of New Spain in what is now Mexico City. Once the letters reached Mendoza, rumors would have spread about the existence of the prosperous cities to the north and the preparations, already underway, for the Coronado Expedition would have been redoubled. 11

During the delivery of these two messages, assuming these messages were indeed sent after the positive reports from Esteban, as he was nearing Cibola, Marcos would learn that Esteban, upon reaching Cibola had been murdered by the natives there. When he heard this news, Marcos de Niza had only approached close enough to see the city in the distance before fleeing back to Mexico. 12

By the time Marcos returned to the capital months later, the planning for the Coronado Expedition would have been almost complete. Still without an eyewitness to the wealth they believed existed at Cibola, Coronado and Mendoza had already staked their fortunes and reputations on the expedition. They were also drunk on stories of wealth and fame the expedition would bring, and there is no record of Fray Marcos de Niza voicing any doubts about the riches they would find. It was little more than a forgone conclusion that the expedition would begin on schedule despite not receiving tangible proof that there was gold at Cibola.

The ancient cities of Cibola are widely believed to have been the seven prosperous trading cities that actually existed on what is now the Zuni Indian Reservation in western New Mexico. When I reached the reservation I found a community open to outsiders, but one that seemed weary of its history with Europeans and Americans. On a tour of the reservation’s museum (which was quite good) my guide; an over weight, twenty-something man with long hair shading his eyes, spoke with his head down toward the creaky plank floor. He talked sullenly about the history of the Zuni with long sighs and a disappointed affectation. His emotion seemed palpable later as I drove among the ramshackle houses and mud-covered streets of the reservation. I took the tour of the museum in regular clothes. I was too anxious I might cause offense dressed as a conquistador. While I was in costume on the reservation I could barely force myself out of the car in order to be photographed.

Coronado’s arrival in the village of Hawiku, the largest in the cluster of seven trading villages known as Cibola, 465 years before mine was of course also marked with disappointment and distress. Finding no gold or other precious metals, Coronado read the natives the Spanish requerimiento 13 and was met with a shower of arrows. The ensuing battle nearly killed Coronado, but the Spanish eventually overran the pueblo. The expedition moved its camp east in order to chase other rumors of precious metals nearby. Ill-equipped to feed and clothe themselves, the expedition soon provoked ongoing hostility from the Indians they encountered as they took provisions and other useful resources from them. Despite these continuing failures, Coronado pursued other tales of wealthy cities, such as the legendary city of Quivera, eventually pursuing the riches of that mythical city all the way to the plains of Kansas before finally giving up and returning to New Spain.

Coronado’s investors viewed the expedition’s inability to find gold or precious metals as a monumental failure. This drive for wealth and power is evidenced by the enormous sums contributed to the expedition by investors and participants. The total amount invested in Coronado’s expedition was nearly five times more than Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro had received as his personal share of the ransom from the Incan Empire, the region with the most gold and other precious metals in the Western Hemisphere. 14

That the members of the expedition were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon and the first to recognize the immense agricultural potential of the fertile plains of the Midwest was of little consequence to the expedition’s investors and likely brought little solace to Coronado. Largely because of his fear of failure Coronado continued searching for gold in the plains of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas for more than a year after the initial failure at Cibola.

My own trip would only take me as far as the Texas panhandle, near a site archeologists believe Coronado’s army camped during its search for gold after the events at Cibola. On August 18, 2006, near the end of my trip, I sat in Nielson’s Café, a dark, wood paneled restaurant in the panhandle town of Floydada, Texas, located near the archeological site. Scott sat across from me in the vinyl booth looking at the sports page. Columns of dusty light slanted in through the windows. I ate slightly dried out enchiladas from the buffet and read a few entries from the Today In History section of the paper aloud: August 18th 1587, Virginia Dare became the first child of English parents to be born on American soil, August 18th 1894, the US Congress established the Bureau of Immigration, and August 18th 1227, Genghis Kahn died.

As I sat there wondering what the ruler of the largest empire on Earth might have said just before he died nearly 8,000 years ago, my eyes wandered to a story about a group of former high school football players from Ozen, Texas who called themselves the Kutchie Kissing Klique, or, more ominously, 3K. Members of this group, some of whom were apparently in their thirties, were accused of intimidating 14 and 15 year-old freshmen girls into performing “sexual favors.” Next to this story there was an AP story about Justin Timberlake calling American Idol winner Taylor Hicks gay and tone-deaf.

I shook my head. It all seemed very redundant. My head shaking was a poor attempt at incredulity. I wasn’t surprised. I mused vaguely to Scott about how some things never change. I tapped my fork on the edge of my plate. In some ways Coronado is a poster child for this dense pessimism about humanity. This feeling often accompanies the only slightly over-simplistic view that much of the war, violence, and hardship occurring in the world are the products of basic insecurity and greedy personal (or nationalistic) self-interest.

This kind of generalization is intellectually lazy. It finds comfort in apathy. It’s enticing to view the comparisons between Coronado’s expedition and American foreign policy as foils. (I do sometimes like to image George Bush in a conquistador outfit¬–his armor jangling as he waves from air-force-one) But sitting there with Scott near the end of our trip it was the differences between self-interest in Coronado’s era and ours that seemed illuminating.

The economics of Coronado’s era were largely redistributive. In Coronado’s era there were relatively finite amounts of resources that changed hands through plunder and conquest. Today the pervasive economic model is growth–the idea that everyone can have a piece of an ever-expanding pie. This is part of the reason why the war in Iraq feels so much like a medieval regression. Self-interest in Coronado’s era was also characterized largely by the narrowness of its scope–it was self-interest in a pre-globalized, or globalizing, world. I can conjure a sort of longing for the forthrightness and simplicity of Coronado’s expedition. In many ways the clarity of his intentions make Coronado’s journey seem pastoral, almost honest. After all, Coronado is now remembered as much as an explorer as he is a conquistador.

Certainly it is possible to make the argument that America’s current efforts in Iraq are as transparently self-interested as Coronado’s. What is different is that those self-interests are buttressed with the moral, or altruistic, underpinnings of spreading democracy and stability in the Middle East. And while Coronado’s journey included indoctrinating the natives with Catholicism, religious conversion was never confused with the stated intent of amassing enormous wealth, power, and fame.

In many ways the insistence on moral and universal justification for pursuing self –interest, even when that self-interest is blindingly transparent, is particularly American. In his book, Dangerous Nation, American historian Robert Kagan describes this “ceaseless effort to reconcile universal principle and selfish interest” as “the true American mission.” 15 In other ways it is classically nationalist. The twentieth century alone provides a laundry list of horrifying examples. On an economic level this impulse owes much to the economics of Adam Smith. And on an individual level the struggle between selfishness and selflessness is among the most ubiquitous features of human life.

Spun in the most positive, possibly naïve, light, the insistence on justifying or reconciling selfishness is recognition that all of our futures are intertwined and connected. The impulse to justify our selves at all can be seen as evidence of a larger good, an inherent knowledge of the limits of self-interest. Any attempt to conjoin self-interest and altruism however begs an important and pointedly philosophical question: Do the natures of self-interest and altruism allow either to be expressed in any single action or policy?

The contemporary reality surrounding self-interest now includes debates concerning our understanding of evolution and its main components of competition and natural selection. Biologist Richard Dawkins has argued that these tools of evolution encode and affect our selfish behavior all the way down to the survival and fundamental character of our genes. 16 Any conversation concerning self-interest also includes issues of global warming, pollution, global capitalism and free markets, over-population, terrorism, and nuclear war. In this light one the most pedestrian of clichés rings true: As individuals, and as nations, we cannot live under the assumption that our own interests take precedence over others. On the other hand, we cannot dispel the fundamental motivation to BE. (Can’t live with, can’t live without) As competition for global hegemony, energy, other resources, land, and access to markets grows more complex and desperate, reconciling, and perhaps streamlining, this paradox between acting in the service of some greater good and acting in our own self-interest will continue to present major challenges for global stability.

Given the staying power of something so fundamental to our makeup what is, to use Bill Clinton’s familiar refrain, “the third way?” Terry Eagleton writes about this enlightened self-interest: “To be concerned for another is to be present to them in the form of an absence, a certain self-forgetful attentiveness. If one is loved or trusted in return, it is largely this, which gives one the self-confidence to forget about oneself, a perilous matter otherwise. We need to think about ourselves partly because of fear, which the assurance that flows from being trusted allows us to overcome.” 17 To thrive in this way through the realization of another, to find this trust, is to find love. In the end this means finding a way to conjoin altruism and self-interest–in other words, to realize them as the same thing. Despite the lofty idealism of its charge, searching for ways to bring an enlightened version of self-interest into being, through humor and humility, art, politics, foreign policy, capitalism, the free market, cultural production and, yes, even love, is the expeditionary cause of our time.

Writer’s note: I would like to extend a special thanks to Scott Clark, both for his company on this trip and for his fine work in documenting yet another project of mine that would otherwise exist only in print. I would also like to thank Peter von Ziegesar, Lindsey Baker, and Ky Anderson for their advice, questions, thoughts, and opinions during the editing of this text through its many, many, many versions.

Thank you.

1 Event Plan, A brief History of Re-enactment,
2 Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, The Coronado Expedition, University of New Mexico Press, 2003; Chapter 4 page 75
3 Cibola is the native name for a cluster of seven villages that are believed to have been major regional trading villages of the Zuni Indians in what is now western New Mexico. There is evidence that these seven villages did in fact exist but no evidence that gold was ever widely used there.
4 The paragraph preceding the footnote was paraphrased from the text: Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, The Coronado Expedition, University of New Mexico Press, 2003; Chapter 3 page 42
5 Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, The Coronado Expedition, University of New Mexico Press, 2003; Chapter 2 page 21
6 Pedro de Castañeda was a member and chronicler of the Coronado expedition. He was a native of Nájera, a town in the state of Vizcaya in northern Spain. At the time of the organization of the Coronado expedition, Castañeda was at a Spanish outpost at Culiacán, in northwestern Mexico.
7 Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, The Coronado Expedition, University of New Mexico Press, 2003; Chapter 2 page 22
8 “Ibid” Chapter 2 page 21
9 “Ibid” Chapter 2 page 22

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